A vacation destination in western Turkey is now at the center of the human trafficking of Syrian refugees and other migrants trying to make the perilous sea journey to Europe.
IZMIR — A gold watch on his wrist, rings on his fingers and a rosary in his hand, "Haji the wise" meets us in a traditional Turkish restaurant in Izmir. It is a two-hour drive from this renowned vacation destination in western Turkey to the beaches where hundreds of refugees board every evening in an attempt to reach European shores.
These are also the beaches where dead bodies are washed up. "There's been a lot of work today and it'll be the same thing tomorrow," says Haji, one of the smugglers cashing in on the wave of would-be immigrants. "There are so many of them who want to leave."
Last week, some 20,000 migrants got to Europe through the network based in and around Izmir. Convicted several times for various forms of trafficking, the Syrian-Kurdish smuggler is one of the big bosses of the illicit business.
Amin, a former Syrian student, approaches, and Haji smells a potential costumer. "I'm 64 and I've been here for 15 years. I can be trusted," he tells the young man.
The "wise" old man is smiling as he ticks off the wide range of services he can arrange: "A pleasure boat? No, they're wooden boards put together. If you want to travel safely, you can do it on a cargo ship. For 5,000 euros, you can go into the cabin, next to the captain," he says with a wink. "But, if you're afraid of the water, you can cross the border by car for 2,500 euros with false documents. We won't have any problem finding you a fake Romanian, Bulgarian or Greek ID."
For a few months now, the Basmane neighborhood, around Izmir's main railway station, has become a hub for smugglers — and a destination for migrants yearning to leave. In the shop windows, orange life jackets have replaced bikinis and pareos. A peddler sells off buoys before the astonished gaze of a few tourists. In restaurant windows, placards flourished during the summer: "We exchange money." The clandestine crossing of the Mediterranean has to be paid in dollars or euros, not in Turkish liras.
Often with a black backpack to carry their only belongings, thousands of Syrians and Iraqis walk up and down the streets of this seaside resort. Some of them lie down on cardboard boxes directly on the ground. In the shadow of the train station, a huge globe stands as a bitter reminder that the refugees struggle to get anywhere.
Amin, who was a student at Damascus University, decided it was time to flee his war-torn country. He happened to find his friend, Khatar, by chance amid the stream of prospective emigrants heading westward through Turkey. And the pair now are trying to figure out how to make the next part of the journey into Europe.
Every evening, hundreds of illegal immigrants are driven away from Izmir to beaches along the Turkish coast. At dawn, they board inflatable boats heading towards the Greek islands of Kos, Chios or Samos. Khatar, who once studied at the prestigious Beaux-Arts academy in Paris, has already experienced four false starts, and now has been stuck in the seaside resort for eight days. "Police controls are multiplying," he says. "There are too many of us. We need to be patient."
Amin is still hesitating. He approaches a cafe called Sinbad the Sailor. Smugglers and others hocking goods and services swarm around migrants like vultures. Abou Amar meets with his "customers" on a shady terrace. The former sniper of the Free Syrian Army, opponents of Bachar Al-Assad's regime, was recruited by a fellow fighter to become a smuggler. For less than 1,000 euros a month, he acts as an intermediary — a "samsar."
A squad of Syrians, Kurds and Egyptians work for smugglers, helping them to pull in migrants, get paid and guide them to inflatable boats driven with "Made in China" engines. "Those damned engines always break down," Abou Amar grumbles. "We are constantly calling the Turkish coast guards to warn them that crafts are drifting."
Whatever the condition of the engine, the price is the same: 1,100 euros with no fixed date for the departure. Some also offer to reach Greece by Jet Ski for 1,800 euros, or by ship for 2,300 euros. Regardless, it is a trip that is impossible to do alone — even if it is short — because smugglers watch the coast.
Abou Amar says that this growing business is run by "a dozen Turkish mafiosi," along with one Russian who has other interests. The Syrian man lowers his voice: "Once, when there were passengers already on board, I could hear my "colleagues' ask if the boat was empty or full. I was told they were speaking of drugs."
Since then, the former sniper quit. "It's a really disgusting job," he says. "These people sell everything to go to Europe. Smugglers and corrupt customs officers are building a fortune off their backs."
The hotels in Basmane have also been doing well. Exclamations in Arabic resonate across the cheap lodge where Amin booked the last available room. In the hallways, the guests make phone calls to reassure their relatives, via WhatsApp, Skype or Viber.
A small group of Syrians turned up within these yellowing walls a few days ago. Coming from Hama, they travelled through zones controlled by loyalist forces, the Free Syrian Army and ISIS, before reaching Turkey. "Are you sure we'll get to Greece?" one asks Abou Youssef.
Seated on the entrance hall of the hotel, the young Kurd answers them in broken Arabic: "I can take you to the boat. Then, nothing is guaranteed."
Quietly, the smuggler explains how it works: "You deposit the money in an agency. Once you're on the island, you call me and you give me the transaction number to collect the money. It's easy, isn't it?"
The group of Syrians are wary, and the negotiation stalls over the question of how the passage will be guaranteed. They leave after shaking hands.
"I seldom go see my clients. Usually, they come to my office," says the young man, who himself left Syria two years ago. Amin has a lot of questions. "There is no danger in boarding an inflatable boat. The proof: Next week, my children and I will make the trip," the man insists.
Amin asks again about other ways to make it to Europe. "For that, you need to see my boss." That's how Amin made it to the restaurant table where "Haji, the wise," was waiting.
After some more questions, and thinking about it, the university student finally makes a decision: He will not go to Europe. "At least, not like that. Not treated like cattle."